Previous Site of the Month: April 2012
Wilfred X. Johnson House
206 Tower Avenue, Hartford, CT 06120
Wilfred Xavier Johnson was born in Dawson, Georgia, the son of Eugene and Griselda Johnson. His family came North in 1925 during the first major wave of emigration from the Deep South. Johnson attended school in Hartford and graduated from Weaver High School in 1939. During his high school years, he worked after school as a messenger, or "runner" for the Hartford National Bank in downtown Hartford.
After serving as a dental technician in the U.S. Army during World War II, Johnson returned to Hartford expecting to begin a professional career with the Hartford National Bank. Such a choice of career was unheard of for African-Americans at that time. At first the bank was reluctant to offer him a career track position, particularly one that involved direct interaction with the public. It did, however, encourage him to continue as a messenger and later as a clerk in the analysis department while he attended Hillyer College and the American Institute of Banking, both in Hartford. In 1955 Johnson was promoted to teller, the first African-American to hold such a position in the state.
Although Johnson continued as a teller at the bank until his death in 1972, he had other business interests in the city. Between 1949 and 1954, he was in business with his brother Howard. They ran a haberdashery called Johnson’s Men’s Furnishings at 1930 Main Street. In 1964 Johnson opened a liquor store on Barbour Street known as Spike’s Spirit Shoppe.
Wilfred Johnson entered politics in 1946 at the grassroots level, campaigning in his neighborhood for Democratic Party candidates. At that time most blacks were still solidly Republican, the party of Lincoln. In 1953 he ran unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for city council. Another bid for that office in 1955 also failed. With the encouragement of his political mentor, Judge Boce Barlow, Jr., a prominent black Democrat in Hartford, and William curry, one of the party bosses, Johnson sought the party’s nomination for state representative in 1958 and became the first African-American in Connecticut’s history to be endorsed by the Democratic party. Running in a citywide election, Johnson won handily with the support of an ethnic political coalition composed of Irish-, Italian- and African-Americans. His opponent was another black candidate, the Reverend J. Blanton Shields of Hartford, one of the first two blacks to be endorsed in the state by the Republican Party. The other candidate, who also lost a bid for election, was Mrs. Margaret Ashley of Plainville. Johnson, who was reelected for four consecutive terms and served until his defeat in 1968, also served as co-chair of the third ward in Hartford during this period. As a freshman legislator, he served acting speaker of the house, an honor rarely accorded a new member of the house, and was also appointed a colonel in the Governor’s Footguard. Johnson was the first African-American to hold both of these honorary positions. His promising political career was cut short by his death in January 1972 at age 51. In February of that year, the state senate paid him tribute in an official eulogy and leaders of both parties praised him as "a giant in his ideas, beliefs, and feelings for his constituents."